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Archive for April, 2013

School’s Out for Summer

with 4 comments

So,  I’m looking at the comments, and to start I’d like to say that I agree with Mike Fisher 100%–in fact, it’s the same thing I’ve been saying for years now.

I’d also like to say that I’ve got at least one way in which I can do a rough check  on the differences between what is being called “high school work” now and what was being called that when I was in high school.

When I went to high school, the required math courses were Algebra 1, Geometry, Trigonometry, and Math 4, which we’d probably now call “precalculus.”

At my son’s private high school just six years ago, the required math courses were Algebra 2, Geometry,  Trigonometry and Calculus.

My students, however, routinely arrive with not so much as Algebra 1.  If they want a degree that requires some math–like, say, nursing–they take Algebra 1, Geometry and Trigonometry at “college.”

And in spite of what the university tells the students, it’s not some kind of super duper special “college” version of Algebra.  I know, because I once sat outside a classroom where Algebra 1 was being taught and listened while a teacher gave a lesson that was virtually identical to the one my younger son had that same week–in 7th grade.

To say that high schools have been dumbed down is to put it mildly.

Outside the Gold Coast towns and the private schools, an actual high school education isn’t even offered in most of the public schools in my state.

And my state has one of the best public school systems in the country.

And I also agree with Mike that the reason for t his is the stubborn refusal to accept the idea that there is such a thing as academic and/or intellectual talent and that some people just don’t have it.

But the reasons for that were entirely well meaning–at least as described–and in no way connected with what corporations wanted.

In fact, if corporations had gotten what they’d wanted, the educational system wouldn’t look like this.

It wouldn’t necessarily have been much better, but it would at least have been less expensive for the students.

But businesses don’t really care about graduation rates.  They care about skill sets.

What happens when schools run into the brick wall that is the uneven distribution of natural talent and still want to raise their graduation rate is that they lower the standards for graduation so that more people can meet them.

And then it all works out the way Mike outlined in the comment.

And yes, the people who are hurt the worst are the kids whose families don’t have the money to buy them a proper high school education.

And the next worst hit are the kids whose families do not have the cultural capital to give them at home what the schools no longer give them in class.

But there are two big problems with trying to fix this.

The first is actually the easier one to get past–and that is the fact that if we did return high school graduation standards to what they were in, say, 1940, the graduation rates would be even more skewed by race and ethnicity than they are now.

This would be true no matter what the distribution of intellectual talent was–it would be true even if African American and Latino children had higher native talent than whites or Asians.

That’s because it’s not enough to have an IQ of 170, or–okay,  much more commonly–130. 

A child needs other things if he is going to be academically successful, and a lot of those things are incredibly basic.

One of those things–and,  yes, this is my big hobbyhorse–is organization.

My bright remedial students (and there are more of them that you think) seem to report coming from homes that make absolutely  no sense to me:  no set time for everybody to wake up on even week day mornings, no set times for meals, no pattern from one day to the next.

I’m talking here not ab0ut rigidity but about basic organization. 

A kid who arrives in the classroom, even the Head Start classroom, who has never had such schedules and who leaves school every day to go back to the free floating chaos is inevitably using half his intellectual power just trying to cope.

Things you and I do without thinking about them are things that kid has to make conscious decisions about, day after day, hour after hour.

What seems  like mental slowness may actually be just this–the desperate attempt to figure out what to do in the next half second, what’s supposed to go where, what’s supposed to happen when.

The good news about this is that the  problem is fixable. The bad news about this is that the problem is not fixable in a single generation, unless you’re willing to go in for draconian policies that couldn’t get into a Congressional committee at this point.

Such as–removing poor kids from disorganized poor homes and  have them raised by foster parents very well paid and judged on their ability to provide discipline and structure.

Like I said, it’s not going to happen, and it shouldn’t.

It is situations like these that programs like Head Start are designed to fix, but without the draconian measures they can’t fix them. 

They can, however, make a dent–and that dent can pass down to these student’s children, where the dent will be deeper.  And that generation will pass the dent down to the next, where the dent may be just big enough to get the results everybody wants now and immediately.

But ALL of that requires resetting standards to the higher levels, graduating fewer people from high school, and having some kind of integrity about content.

And yes, it’s terribly unfair.  These kids did nothing to land in the families they have.

But reality is inelastic.  It can’t be done in a single generation.  It can’t be done at all with an attempt to pretty up everybody’s resume by giving them high school diplomas that not only mean nothing, but often mean that employers and colleges know to stay away from you at all costs.

The biggest problem with getting something done about this is the breathtaking racism of the teaching profession and the administrators and legislators who  support it.

It you want to see a group of people who honestly believe, right down to their gut, that black and Latino children are just not as bright as white and Asian ones, this is where to look.

But the real issue with fixing this will be the obvious–the money.

And no, I’m not talking about for-profit schools making cash off the skills crash, although that’s a (very small) part of it.

I want  you to think for a minute about how many people are employed in the US today to “fix” the problem of kids who don’t have basic high school skills.

There are, first, all the faculty and administrators at all the colleges, universities,  community colleges and all the rest, including both full time and part time workers.  These people are teachers and special tutors and “academic support staff” and a million other things, tens of thousands of them–maybe hundreds of thousands of them.

They include teachers teaching remedial education, teachers teaching prospective teachers of remedial education, teachers teaching “regular” courses on a hundred different levels, tutors and writing centers to provide back up for students who can’t spell or do grammar, ESL teachers, math tutors and support staff for math tutoring centers, bureaucrats at the federal Department of Education and all the state Departments of Education, bank employees hired to deal with student loan issues, bureaucrats hired to deal with federally guaranteed student  loan issues and things like Pell Grants–

I could go on, but you get the point. 

If we returned high school graduation standards to their 1960 level, a lot of people would lose their jobs, because there would be no need of them.

If we returned high school graduation standards to their 1930 level, we’d also lose tens of thousands of high school teachers, along with “academic support staff’ to provide tutoring and other “services” to kids who were flunking out.

Of course, the kids would be better off.  They wouldn’t  have to run up bills and debts to get the same skill set that would be available to them at around eighth grade.  They could go out and go to work earlier, enter the job market with more skills and more prospects, and–because they wouldn’t have those expenses and that debt–even be able to flounder a little until they got their bearings so they had a chance of ending up doing something they actually wanted instead of doing what they have to do not to default on those loans.

But, of course, this system is not being run for the benefit of students.

Written by janeh

April 28th, 2013 at 8:54 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Spring is Sprout

with 10 comments

It is spring, and with spring comes what I think of the inevitable and you probably don’t–term papers.

It also brings the end of another Gregor novel, and I’m getting up at ridiculous hours of the morning to do that, but I like writing Gregor novels.

I don’t so much like correcting term papers.

Part of the reason for that is the obvious.  Correcting essays,  if you do it right, is dull, slogging work.    You have to pay attention to everything, including things you haven’t thought about for years:  grammar, punctuation, spelling, argument structure.

I’m not saying that these things are not important in my every day life.  Of course they are, but they’re also things that I learned decades ago and don’t really think about anymore while I’m doing them.

When I first came back to teaching after many years of being away, I would find myself stuck on the obvious wrongness of things in papers, with no way of being able to articulate why they were wrong.

Spelling was easy enough, but the other stuff just let me blank.  It was so obviously wrong that I couldn’t understand how anybody could miss is, never mind not know.

I’ve gotten past that by now, of course, and I’ve got a lot of things to say when the papers come in looking like they’ve been written by people whose first language is Klingon.

Oh, and by the way–papers from ESL students are almost always better written than papers from native English speakers, because they ESL students know they don’t k now and are careful about it.

But it’s not that kind of thing that gets to me now.  It’s the stupid.

To give you some idea–the stupid is not about people with low IQs.  My guess is that, if we ever decided to admit people with significant mental handicaps, they’d be like my ESL students–better, because they’d know they didn’t know.

The stupid does not have to do with that but with a kind of casual thoughtlessness.

One of the things I do is to give a short quiz at the start of every class.  This is a three paragraph writing sample, and the point of it is to let me watch my students’ progress through the term.  The daily writing samples tell me if my students are progressing or falling back, if there are things I need to work on with them–and, of course, what their writing is generally like.

This means that when a paper comes in with a vocabulary worthy of The Atlantic Monthly, I know if the student who submitted it does in fact write in a vocabulary worthy of The Atlantic Monthly.

And, of course, many of them don’t.  I can confirm this fact by calling them up and asking them what various words mean, and I can reconfirm it by Googling specific phrases until I find the original document (or documents) that the student has plagarized.

But if this was the extent of the plagarism problem, it wouldn’t be so bad.

What blows me away is the extent to which these kids go to the Internet, copy and paste an essay straight off the Web, and then hand it in.

It’s not the dishonesty that shocks me.  I do understand that there will be a certain amount of this kind of thing whether I like it or not. 

What shocks me is that they’ve apparently never considered the p ossibility that if they could easily find this thing to hand it, other people before them probably found it, too.

This is about the tenth term in a row that somebody has handed in the essay that starts–“there are three kinds of love: agape love, eros love, and philos love.”

To be fair, I should note that there are actually several versions of this essay on the web. 

They all, however, use these three names for the kinds of love, and the students who turn these things in to me cannot define the terms if they’re not looking at their papers.

Now, plagarism is a slippery slope.  There are sometimes shades of grey.

Sometimes students will say to me that they did see the essays on love, but they just used them to write their own essay using the same ideas.

Then I have to explain that not citing ideas is also plagarism, whether they used somebody else’s exact wording or not.

At that point the student will tell me he or she did not know that.

At that point I will have to explain that I went over the  parameters of plagarism already twice in class, and that there’s material on the subject up on Blackboard.

But for me, the kicker isn’t this, either.

It’s their absolute shock that I, um–I actually know how to use the Internet. 

And they are genuinely shocked, as if anybody over the age of 25 couldn’t possibly spend time web surfing or figure out how to use a search engine.

Actually, I’m better at all of it than any of them are, although I don’t know why.  I thought they were supposed to be geting computer training in high school.

Come the research paper, I have to spend an hour or so showing people how to find the information they need to produce an MLA format works cited item on a web site.

I still find it enormously depressing to find these papers scattered in among the rest. 

Part of me wants to say, “for God’s sake, if you’re going to cheat, at least do it right.”

Instead, I try to put the best face on it I can, and explain as patiently as I can.

Then I give the paper a 0 and don’t allow a rewrite.

There’s so much plagarism now that no place I know of maintains the old zero-tolerance, expelled on your ear the first time policy I remember from my own years in college.

I’m not sure that I think that that policy was ever the right one–and now, dealing with “nontraditional” students, students who are first in their families to go to college, students who have had a lot of life before they show up at the door, and all the rest of it–

With all of that, it makes a certain amount of sense that we’re a little more flexible than we used to be.

Even so, the cheating is an indicator of something, and I think it may be yet another indicator that the entire credentialing system is going to go up in smoke.

Because some students cheat because they’re panicked.

And some students cheat because they’re dishonest.

And some students–maybe most of them–cheat because the entire process has lost all meaning.

They don’t think we have anything to teach them, or that they have anything to learn.

They just think their futures are being held hostage, and sitting for four  years in classrooms so that teachers and administrators get paid and universities make money is the price of admission to real life.

 I think they’re honestly shocked when they find out that we care that they cheat at all.

I’ve got papers to correct.

I’d better go do them.


Written by janeh

April 25th, 2013 at 8:41 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Boston Massacre

with 14 comments

I’ll admit it.  When I first started thinking about writing a blog post this morning, my  initial inclination was to say “well, here we go again,” and leave it at that.

There’s a “here we go again” feel about these things to me these days.

They’ve begun to all run together for me,   in spite of the fact that their perpetrators seem to have (at least superficially) different motives and different personalities.

And I can’t get behind the reductionism of people who declare that anybody who does anything like this is by defintion “mentally ill.”

The designation seems to be shorthand for saying “I don’t understand it, I don’t think anybody can understand it, so I’m going to call it a disease.”

Certainly some of the people who do these things seem to be mentally–um, off–on some level.  It’s difficult to know what to say about somebody who dresses up as The Joker to stage a mass shooting in a theater showing a Batman movie except that he’s got a brain that may be missfiring in all sorts of directions.

In this case, the media grumbling has been not about “mental illness” but about “terrorism.”

And I get that.  In spite of the BBC’s snarking over the use of the term, I think that in the present state of the world that line of inquiry has to be run down.

But I also think it’s unlikely to pan out, at least if we assume “terrorism” means something like a politically or religiously motivated attack.

Those kinds of attacks tend to have people all over the place trying to take credit for them.  After all, what’s the point of making a political statement unless the world knows what you’re trying to state?

Whoever did this does not seem to care if anyone knows who or why or what for, which could bring us to “domestic terrorism.”

“Domestic terrorism” in the US–see Timothy McVeigh–is usually meant to be retaliatory (getting back for Ruby Ridge) or destabilizing.  It’s not necessary to publish a manifesto if  you think the relevant parties (meaning the US government) already know what’s going on, or if you think it doesn’t matter if they do or don’t because you only want to see them collapse.

The last possibility is the one that tends to be true–some lone guy, or pair of guys, whose most coherent motivation is to make as much fuss as possible and get “famous” in the only way they know how.

On that last point, I’m with the people who want to start the blanking out of perpetrators’ names in the press, so that obscurity and not fame attaches to the people who commit these things.

You’d still have some of those outliers, though, because for some of them revenge or the sheer act of violence will be enough.

But I wonder about something.

If this phenomenon is new–the one about fame and retaliation, now, not about political or religious terrorism, neither of which are new–

If this phenomenon is new, and we’re going to pla that game where we blame it on something else that is new–

Why isn’t the therapeutic culture, and the triumph of  therapy and psychological management in the schools, a likely candidate?

How does anyone–and especially a child–defend himself against being “identified” as having a “mental illness” or a “disorder” and the subsequent attempts to “fix” him?

The  most frightening things about the therapeutic culture all seem to me to be unfixable:

There’s the fact that the people who enforce these regimes are almost all trained out of being able to accept other people as human beings. 

Stuck in a room with a therapeutically “trained professional,” it can be virtually impossible to figure out what is going on. 

If you don’t know the jargon or haven’t seen “good social work practice” in operation, it’s as if the entire world has gone fluid and words mean whatever the “professional” wants them to mean at any particular moment.

It’s virtually impossible to get any of these people to make a simple, unambiguous declarative sentence at any time. 

Instead, you get endless forays into “empathic” language whose only purpose is to manipulate you. 

And any attempt to fight back against what feels increasingly like an assault is merely labelled as yet more “evidence” that you have “mental health issues”–after all, what could you possibly be getting upset about?  We were just trying to explore your  own feelings and ideas so that you could get the “help” you need.

If you don’t find some third party knowledge of what’s being done to you, you end up feeling that the world is a dangerous and hostile place where anything you do at any moment can be labeled and used against you–because, in fact, that is exactly what the world actually is.

And since you have neither the vocabulary nor the insight to pinpoint the real cause of the problem–well, the problem is the world and what’s in it and that world has already labeled you fair game for mental aggression.

So maybe it’s not so odd that some of these people–Adam Lanza, say, or the Colorado theater shooter–do what they do.

And then we declare that the proper response to what we’ve done is to “take mental illness more seriously.”

Written by janeh

April 16th, 2013 at 8:34 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Starring In Your Own Movie

with 3 comments

It’s a gloomy, miserable, depressing day. Practically everything I tried to accomplish over the week end has failed.  I could be the poster child for not worth going on with.

And none of that matters, really, so let me get to what does. 

I got an e mail from a friend containing a link to a book review (of sorts) of an autobriographical novel by Christa Wolff.  For those of you who have never heard of her, Wolff was an East German writer and prominent dissident who spend several years teaching in California after th fall of the Berlin wall. 

Then it was revealed that she had spent a lot of her time as a dissident actually informing on her fellow writers to the Stasi.  She was asked to explain herself.  She responded that she’d…just forgotten she’d ever done it.

Yeah, I know.

The review is here:

From where I sit, it isn’t worth much.  It’s mostly another flapping great attempt to ignore the obvious–left wing writer turns out to be a collaborator (or worse) with murder and oppression, but it doesn’t REALLY mean what it seems to mean.  There are nuances…
I read a million words of this kind of thing in pursuit of the rehabilitation of Martin Heidigger.  I feel about this the way I felt about that.
But what has me writing a blog post is the fact that my writer complained,  mostly, about how wrong it was for a writer to reinvent his/her own life in a novel, especially since writers are never honest when they do that.  They always clean things up and make things better and prettier and more defensible than they were in real life.
And that objection gave me pause, because, quite frankly, I’ve ALWAYS written myself into my own books. 
And as far as I know, so has every other writer I’ve ever heard of.
It’s one of the pieces of advice I give when I’m asked to speak at writer’s conferences:  for a first novel, write it in the first person and star in your own movie.
And, of course, I was no honest about myself.  In my first novel, I’m six feet tall.  I’ve always wanted to be six feet tall.  Patience Campbell McKenna is six feel tall, drinks Bailey’s by the quart and never gets drunk or fat, and I don’t know what else.  Bennis looks a little more like me–or me as I was in1987–but she’s got a fantasy series that outsells J.K. Rowling.
It seems to me to be part of the point of starring in your own movie that you fix the things that you don’t like about the way you are.  And for most writers, those things are the kinds of things I fix–height, weight, career success, relationship status, pets, whatever.
Part of the point of the problem with Christa Wolff’s novel is that when she fixed “herself” in that one, she was fixing much more important and disturbing things than a cat allergy that wouldn’t let her adopt a moggie. 
Turning your friends over to the ideological terrorism of a police state isn’t quite the same thing as making yourself twenty five again.
But the simple act of making yourself better as a character than you are as a human being doesn’t seem to me to be worthy of objection.  Most of us make ourselves better even when we’re just thinking about ourselves.
Some people don’t fix themselves so much as they fix the world–make it operate the way they want it to, rather than the way it does. 
There are all those Socialist Realism novels of the Thirties, and almost all the YA novels ever written.  Television tends to be like that, too. 
In a world of your own making, all religious people can be stupid and violent, all coworkers who favor the welfare state can be Ayn Rand villains, and that commune in the hills can run just beautifully without anybody going hungry or getting dirty or having fights.
To me, Christa Wolff already lived in a world that was false in that sense, without ever really knowing it, or letting herself know it.
And that seems much worse to me that fixing herself to be better than she is when she’s writing herself as a character.
At any rate, I intend to go on making myself look like what I want to look like instead of what I do, give myself a better musical ear and more adorable pets, and revamping my entire house.
I’m not likely to get to do any of that in the real world.

Written by janeh

April 15th, 2013 at 1:02 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

A Trip to the Trailerhood

with 3 comments

So, it’s Saturday morning, and I’ve gotten the real writing down, and I’ve even gotten some work done on my latest side project, which is to produce a systematic account of the way I think about politics, morality, and Americanism–including what I mean by that last word, which is not what everybody else means by it.

In case I’m remembering wrongly and I’ve never put up any indication of this last project here, it’s mainly born out of frustration.

A lot of people accuse me of being contradictory in t hese things, which I’m not, if  you understand the underlying assumptions/axioms/priorities, and somehow just explaining these things on the fly doesn’t quite do it.

I thought I would set down things as they came to me and then organize them later into a coherent whole with chapters and sections and everything to make it easy to find the information you want–what do I think about gay marriage? gun control? abortion? physician assisted suicide? God?–and then get somebody like Keith Snyder to turn it into an e book for me and defray the expenses by charging $1.99 for a copy.

I figure I’d sell about six, but what the hell. 

And yes, I do realize that the format as I’ve planned it would sort of defeat the purpose I have for writing it, since anybody who wanted could skip the foundational sections in the first chapter and just read the notes on the hot button issues.

Still, I’d have it out there, and when people started yelling at me, I could go “See that?  Go read that.”

On top of that, I think I still own a website called How To Be An American, which I meant to use for a project that was supposed to include just this kind of thing,  so I could also put it up there.

I’ve got my fingers crossed that the  incredible roller coaster that has been my life is finally getting to a place where it settles down and I can free  up panic-and-respond time for doing things that actually interest me.

Like I said, fingers crossed.  Fingers really crossed.

Anyway, I did a little work on that today.  The people who comment here have been a tremendous help, because you’ve shown me where my explanations need to be clearer or more fully fleshed out. 

So you’ll probably hear a lot about the stuff that’s going into this as time goes by.  You’ve heard a lot of it already.

In the meantime, I’m still reading Albion’s Seed, and I’ve gotten to what he calls the “backcountry.”

This is, I have to admit, the fun part.

I think I’d been reading through this section for about ten minutes when I realized that my head had started to play Gretchen Wilson’s “Redneck Woman” on a nonstop loop.

By the time I’d been reading for an hour, there was so much hard liquor and so many guns, the image was dizzying.  The description of courting, wedding, and marriage customs was hysterical.  I was just starting to wonder why there wasn’t somebody dead at virtually every wedding when it turned out, well, that there was.

There we were in the middle of the eighteenth century, and these people were not only exhibiting virtually all the characteristics of life in a redneck trailer park, they were making the most anarchic of those trailer parks look tame.

I don’t know when it was I started to realize that I was having a better time–that I was happier in the company of these people–than I had been with any of the others.

I’ve been to trailer parks.  I know rednecks.  I know there are many bad parts, not the least to which can be an instinctive racism and xenophobia.


First, I think there is an instinctive racism/homophobia in a lot of places in this culture, and the incidence of it here seems to me to be at least honest.

Honest  prejudice is, I think, a lot easier to overcome than the hidden kind–easier to overcome almost because it tends to be violently expressed. 

These people know who and what they are and are not shy about expressing it, or owning up to it, either.

You can argue with that, and argue directly.  You’re going to have a lot more trouble arguing with the Hollywood starlet (or college professor, or politician) who mouths all the right platitudes about affirmative action and multiculturalism and whatever while at the same time making perfectly damned sure that he never has to actually associate with any of the minorities or immigrants he thinks he’s championing.

Over at Victor Hanson’s website, there’s a good essay (“American in the Age of Myth”) about just that.

Second, there is just something wonderfully, exuberantly male about all this. 

I suppose I’m talking about “male” in the sociological sense, and I’m willing to stipulate that individual female people could have the same characteristics.

The thing is, I’ve never met one.  Everybody I have ever known and observed who has this sort of no-holds-barred attitude to life has been biologically as well as sociologlically male, and most of them have been young.

Male in this sense is Fred and George Weasley and every test pilot who ever lived.  It’s the stories you read when they give out the Congressional Medal of Honor.  It’s “Look, Ma, no hands” and lighting farts. It’s pride in skill and competitiveness gone in almost everything.  

And that brings me to the third thing.

What I remember best about Fred and George Weasley  is the scene in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix where they effectively  put an end to the reign of Delores Umbrage.

Because the Delores Umbrages–the Nurse Ratcheds–of this world have one purpose in life, and that is to destroy this kind of maleness. 

And maleness of this kind is the one thing that can destroy a Delores Umbrage.

I look around lately and think we need  more and more of this kind of being male, and see that we are spending more and more time trying to beat it out of our children. 

Don’t defend yourself (or, by extention, anyone else)!  Wait till the authority comes!  Anything you do is going to require you to spend a really long time in school, and to get  into college!  Learn to sit still and never challenge the teacher–you’ll get bad recommendations!

And on and on and on.

People here sometimes talk about when the “rot set in.”

I’ve got my candidate:  it was the day when they decided that Chuck Yaeger couldn’t be an astronaut because he’d never gone to college.

I mean, for God’s sake.


Written by janeh

April 13th, 2013 at 10:00 am

Posted in Uncategorized

A Note in the Early Morning

with 4 comments

Just a couple of notes in response to Lymaree’s post.

1) My shoulder is like Lymaree’s husband’s shoulder.  I first dislocated it at 15.  It’s been popping in and out ever since. 

I don’t know if they had the surgery back then, but if they did nobody mentioned it to us.  If they had, my father would have had me in the hospital before I had a chance to complain.

The surgery was recommended to me many years later, when I was first married, but I treated it the way I treat all suggestions that I seek medical attention.

Phooey, as Nero Wolf would say.

2) When I said that all the Reform denominations seem to end up in the same (philosophical, political and religious) place, I was talking about their organizations and hierarchies, not their individual  members.

Most of the individual Methodists I know are fairly conservative, but the United Methodist Church as an organization could trade its web site with the American Humanist Association and be pretty much where they are now, except for a few mentions of God, which they don’t seem to know what to do with anyway.

And although I do get Robert’s point about people and the way they behave, it fails to explain why the Catholics–although they go in for all the welfare state and soft socialism stuff–do  not get snared by the rest of it.

The problem seems to me to be specific to Protestant denominations, and I can’t quite figure out why.

And the right royal mess of it started early, too.  You can see its beginnings in 19th Century Quakerism and in the Unitarianism of 19th Century New England. 

I’ve got to teach two three hour classes today, back to back.

I come home from these things so hoarse I can barely talk.

In some cases, ice cream is medicinal.

Written by janeh

April 10th, 2013 at 6:39 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Disgruntled Furniture

with 10 comments

This is Tuesday, and Tuesday is a day on which I don’t teach.

Today I also have very little to do in the way of correcting or prep. I had a long stretch of office hours yesterday, and as a result I put up all my Blackboard content and worked out  my 102 lecture for tomorrow and did all that kind of thing that I usually put off to Tuesday afternoons.

Add to that the fact that we’ve gotten to the part of the term when practically nobody is handing in assignments, and that I didn’t sleep through the alarm clock going off, and I was looking forward to a nice long stretch of music and book after I finished my writing.

I alsomst managed it, too, except that the arm that got dislocated is still a little sore, and I had a nearly impossible time holding up the book in order to read it.

The book is called Albion’s Seed.  It’s off in another room at the moment, and I’d go look for the complete title and the author, but at the moment I’m mad at it.

I’m not angry at the content.  It’s one of the more interesting books I’ve read in a long time.

It purports to be a study of the ways in which the original settlement of the American colonies was derived from distinct British regions with distinct regional cultures whose characters are with us still.

When I first heard that description, I thought the book was going to be an expanded version of a Thomas Sowell book (Black Rednecks and White Liberals, I think), which is about the ways in which black underclass culture is a direct descendant of white “cracker” (hillbilly?) culture.

That’s a very interesting book, too, but it’s a polemic against the modern fashion for declaring that ghetto culture is “authentically black” while things like getting good grades in school and not fathering children out of wedlock is not.

The Sowell is a very interesting  book, too, and very well researched, and very well worth looking into, but Albion’s Seed is not that.

What it actually is–in spite of what seem to me to be mostly cursory nods to the English regions from which the colonies sprang–is a sociological study of the attitudes, habits, ideas and religious convictions of just those colonies. 

In each case, at end of each such study, we get a look into how the colonists of each particular region defined the idea of “freedom.”

 This, as the saying goes, explains a lot.

It especially explains a lot of my own ambivalent feelings about my own American region. 

The Puritans of New England, it seems, pretty much invented the idea of policing and punishing domestic violence and punishing sexual transgressions of various kinds (adultery, fornication, whatever) equally harshly (and sometimes more harshly) for men as for women.

They also invented something very much like our Child Protective Services, except that they’d take your child away from you and give it to another family if you didn’t punish it enough.

To me, this does not sound like an actual substantive difference.

The book is not answering all my questions about this period, and I’ve got a hunch it isn’t even going to address my big questions about religion (specifically, about Christian denominational histories), but it is very interesting indeed, and it even included an explanation of Quaker belief and practice.

I still don’t understand Quaker belief and practice, mind you, but I’m increasingly of the opinion that it isn’t really possible to understand it in anything like an intellectualized way. 

Reading about this reminds me of the 1960s truism about LSD: you can’t understand what being on acid is like unless you’re actually on acid.

In case you’re wondering–my big question about religion (and particularly Christian denominational histories) is why the Reform denominations seem to predictably and exclusive to descend into some form of what we would now call “left liberalism.”

I’m not talking about the socialist aspects of mainline Protestantism.  Given the New Testament, a bias in favor of at least some forms of socialism makes a certain amount of sense.

I’m talking about the (by now almost inevitable) plunge into what amounts to militant secularism covered in fancy theological language, a recoil against all things supernatural, and the complete abandonment of any concept of personal sin.

If there was one thing the Puritans were convinced of, it was the centrality of personal sin.  Their present day descendants (Congregationalists, United Church of Christ) see sin only in “systemic injustice” and don’t think anything can be done about it unless we get to the “root causes.”

Of course, they’re still true to their heritage in wanting to police everybody’s private behavior and innermost thoughts–so there’s that.

Apparently, one of the things the Puritans had was a guy who went around and inspected life in all the houses to make sure the family was living the way it was supposed to be, with the power to bring charges if they weren’t.  The court could then dissolve the family if it wasn’t behaving as proscribed.

Puritan towns also existed as vast networks of informers, with  neighbors running to tattle to authorities about everything from religious opinions to a husband calling his wife bad names.

At any rate, I’ll get back to that, and probably to my big religious question, too.

At the moment, I’ve got a problem.

The book is fun to read.  It’s well written.  It’s got lots of information in it I haven’t seen before.  It’s got charts and maps and all kind of other things.

It’s also as large and as heavy as a piece of furniture.

Serious furniture.

Which means I probably couldn’t read it for long periods even if the arm wasn’t still aching on and off.

It’s literally too heavy to hold up for long periods of time, and I can’t take it in to school with me at all.

I’ve already ruined two tote bags this years trying to carry heavy textbooks.  Add this thing to the latest one and it would disintegrate on the spot.

Surely somebody, somewhere, ought to have consider this sort of thing when they designed the book.

But then, this year, I’m continually surprised by what book designers aren’t considering.


Written by janeh

April 9th, 2013 at 8:57 am

Posted in Uncategorized

And For March…

with 6 comments

Well, the term is halfway done, and I’m predictably frantic, but the usual  mess has been exacerbated this time by a lot of small but inconvenient things.

At the moment, the most inconvenient of these things has been the fact that I dislocated my right shoulder.

It’s been suitably relocated, but it aches like hell, and I’m having a hard time typing and writing on the whiteboard.  Especially writing on the whiteboard. 

It’s making class very frustrating at the moment.

I do have a March list, however, and I’m going to outline it below, with notes at the bottom.

Going along with the usual practice up till now, I’ve included only those books I finished in March.

I should point out, however, that there would be one more book on the list for March if the shoulder thing hadn’t happened.   I was very close to finished when I suddenly had to start taking care of that, and I did finish yesterday.

But more on that NEXT month.

This month, we have:

15) Leslie Fiedler.  What Was Literature? Class Culture and Mass Society.

16) Stephen King.  Duma Key.

17) Ann Coulter.  Mugged.

18) Dashiell Hammett.  The Thin Man.

19) Jean Favier.  Gold and Spices: The Rise of Commerce in the Middle Ages.

20) Joan Hess.  A Diet to Die For.

21) Leszek Kolakowski.  Is God Happy?  Selected Essays.

22) Ben Shapiro.  Bullies: How The Left’s Culture of Fear and Intimidation Silences America.

23) Lloyd C. Douglas.  Magnificent Obession.

The notes are going to get a little long, and I won’t go over all of these.  And I’ve already discussed one or two of them on the blog.

16) Stephen King’s Duma Key is an odd book.  Like almost everything else the man writes, the thing is enormous and also compelling, so I found myself reading compulsively but not knowing why. 

I don’t need a lot of incident in the books I read, and King is always exellent with character, but these were not particularly interesting people inhabiting a  not particularly interesting premise and with an ending that felt gratuitously tacked on.

In spite of all that, I kept on reading, and not just because I always finish what I start. 

I kept on reading because I couldn’t help myself, in spite of the fact that I couldn’t figure out why.

If I had the talent to do this,  I’d be a multimillionaire.  I think King is.

19) Jean Favier.  Gold and Spices: The Rise of Commerce in the Middle Ages.

Like most people who read a lot, I have a TBR pile that looks like a library fire sale, or worse.

This particular book arrived on that pile back in 1998. 

I’m not entirely sure why it took  me so long to get around to it.  You’d  think it would be a natural–my favorite historical period, and a subtopic of that period that I don’t know much about.

And as it turned out, there was a lot of very interesting information in this thing, things I’d never even considered and am glad to know.

Unfortunately, the thing was put together like a social studies textbook, proceding not chronologically but topically, so that there was no narrative to it at all.

It was one of the best illustrations I’ve ever had of something I tell  my students:  human beings are narrative animals. 

Whatever is not narrative tends to feel opaque, if not just untrue.

Add that to the fact that the writer–a French academic; the book was translated from the French–had to stop every few pages to insist that he realized he wasn’t using the term “capitalism” in the same sense in which Marx had so admirably defined it, and the experience was overall a disappointment.

22) Ben Shapiro.  Bullies:  How The Left’s Culture of Fear and Intimidation Silences America. 

This is, quite frankly, just a waste of time.  It contains nothing you haven’t heard before (with one exception), no even adequate level of research or documentation, and a lot of adolescent insults that are both gratuitous and rude.

This is the kind of book you give someone if you are trying to convince them that conservatives are stupid and offensive–a page out of the Don Imus/Michael Savage playbook.

The one exception wasn’t so much something Shapiro did directly as something he helped me to do.  He provided a precis of the actual events in the Trayvon Martin case with footnotes that got me started on what to look for to make it make more sense than it has  up to now.

For that I am truly grateful.  That case has been making me crazy for quite some time now–and I knew things were being left out of the mainstream news stories when the whole thing disappeared from sight rather abruptly–but this finally gave me an idea of what to punch into Google to get what I needed to know.

This was not a small thing.

23) Lloyd C. Douglas.  Magnificent Obsession.

This is a very old book, published in 1929 by a man who was once the best selling author in America and the man who wrote The Robe. 

It was in  my house when I was growing up, one of a set of Douglas’s works in matching bindings that went along with another set of works (by Maugham) also in  matching bindings.

These were the only books I ever knew my mother to own, although I  never saw her read them.

When I was a child I tried a lot of different volumes from these two sets.  I became an almost instant fan of Maugham, but I could never read the Douglas novels, no matter how hard or how many times I tried.

I picked this one up again because, through the magic of television, I came upon a movie made of the book in the 1950s, starring Rock Hudson as the young Bobby Merrick whose life is changed because of a religious idea.

Well, not quite.

Douglas was a minister before he became a novelist, and all his novels are “religious” in one sense or another. The Robe–which is the supposed story of the Roman soldier who won Christ’s robe when the soldier’s cast lots of it–is obviously and clearly Christian in a way most of us would recognize.

The Rock Hudson movie of this novel was not religious in this sense, and I thought, when I saw it, that they had probably taken a lot of the specific religious ideas out.

Now that I’ve read the book, however, the religion issue turns out not to be that simple.

The best way I can explain it is to say that the book does claim to be based on a Truth found in the Bible, and specifically the New Testament, the page on which this Truth can be found is never explicitly indicated.

What’s more, the effect of bringing that Truth into your life is–well, oddly stated. 

The idea seems to be that if you bring this Truth into your life, you can Enlarge Your Personality in such a way that you can do great things in your life that will be of benefit to all humanity.

It’s not quite the prosperity Gospel, because it’s not about getting rich or getting other goodies for yourself, but at the same time it’s more like that than anything else I can think of.

And Christianity as described in this is nothing at all like what most people these days would define as “Christian” at all.  It has no particular interest in things like the Virgin Birth or the Substitutionary Atonement, or even the nativity or the Resurrection. 

And it’s not the Social Gospel, either.

The point, however,  is that in all this, the movie was pretty faithful to the book.

Where it veered off into the mist was in the plot.  It  kept the opening premise and short sequence of events, then ditched the entire  middle, transformed the  nature of at least two characters beyond all recognition, made a short series of events at the very end into the entire middle of the movie and then got Bobby and Helen together at the end because–well, that’s  how the book wa supposed to end.

It was once said that the movies paid Helen Gurley Brown $50,000 a word for the title Sex and the Single Girl, and I know that movie adaptations are often  not really adaptations at all.

I still find it annoying beyond belief when movies do this. 

As to the book itself–it’s of a kind that was once the staple of  best seller lists and moderate reputations alike, and that  isn’t published any more than I know of.

It is largely a book about ordinary people living ordinary lives and having ordinary problems, but it’s  not the kind of thing contemporary “literary”  novels do, even when they can be described the same way.

I had a very good time with it, even if I didn’t ever get through the muddle to the Truth or where it’s supposed to be found.


Written by janeh

April 2nd, 2013 at 9:07 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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